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Some Observations on the Brancacci Chapel Frescoes after Their Cleaning

Author(s): Keith Christiansen


Source: The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 133, No. 1054 (Jan., 1991), pp. 4-20
Published by: Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/884614
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KEITH CHRISTIANSEN

Some

observations

after

on

the

their

Brancacci

Chapel

frescoes

cleaning*

It is now fashionable to denigrate Vasari's progressivist


bias, but what he described was no intellectual abstraction,
for the methods Masaccio employed on the walls of the
Brancacci Chapel did indeed become the basis of art training
throughout Europe. It is the central r6le these frescoes
have played in the history of art that makes their recent
cleaning so important, for even though samples of their
original colour were revealed in 1932, when parts of the
baroque altar covering the inner edges of two of the scenes
were removed, it was impossible to appreciate their effect
as a whole or to assess accurately their innovative qualities. But now the dark, sfumato effects in the landscape
of the Tribute money that Ruskin praised are gone,4 and
instead we see a limpid sky that Piero della Francesca
must have admired. The scene of St Peter healing the lame
with his shadow (Fig. 15) has taken on an altogether richer
meaning as the apostle's progress down an uningratiating
Florentine street is measured, not by the dense accumulation
of grime across the foreground that was previously interpreted as Masaccio's idea of a shadow, but by sharply
defined bands of true cast shadows in a light-filled space.
By the same token, it is now possible to understand how,
from Reynolds's mid-eighteenth-century point of view
(prior, that is, to the effects of the fire that swept through
the Carmine in 1771 and the subsequent disastrous efforts
to revive the frescoes), Masaccio's manner seemed 'dry
and hard'.5 For the Masaccio that is now revealed is at

once more revolutionary and, paradoxically, more closely


allied to his own time than has often been conceded. The
pink, blues, and ochre-yellows of his palette are similar to
those of his late gothic forebears, but treated with a new
sobriety and transformed by a natural-seeming light that
throws the forms into relief. Perhaps those who have denied
Masaccio's authorship of the marvellous picture in the
National Gallery, London (Fig.21) - a lateral panel from
the S. Maria Maggiore altar-piece - in which St Jerome
wears a brilliant vermilion robe while St John the Baptist
is shown with a striking pink cloak, will now see its affinity
to the frescoes and recognise in the large, simplified structure of the heads, defined in terms of light, the final
statement of Masaccio's revolutionary style.
The frescoes have, of course, suffered a good deal of
damage, and this must constantly be borne in mind. Quite
apart from the irreversible changes in colour in several
large areas caused by the 1771 fire,6 scratches and abrasions
disfigure the surface, and considerable allowance must be
made for the loss of details and modelling. (The portions
of the two heads in the Baptism of the neophytesthat were
protected by the baroque altar (Figs. 12 and 13) should be
taken as an index of what is missing elsewhere.) An extreme
case is the head of the angel in the Expulsion, now scarcely
more than a coloured shape (Fig.6), while the head of the
man kneeling before St Peter enthroned in Antioch (Fig. 16)
has lost all definition. Moreover, little has survived of the
azurite that was laid on a secco:the grey-blue of the sky in
the Expulsionfrom Paradise (Fig. 1) and that of Christ's cloak
in the Tribute moneyare both preparatory layers, and the
robe of the figure seated to the right of Theophilus in the
Raising scene (Fig. 16) is little more than underpaint (which
is not without an interest of its own). This loss seriously
affects the original chromatic brilliance of the cycle, which
is further compromised by the loss of the gold with which
Masolino embellished the costumes of some of his figures,
as well as the near total loss of the gilding of the haloes.
Then there are the enormous lacunae (filled in and reconstructed) in the lower right corner of the Tributemoney,the
upper left of the Baptism of the neophytes,in the loggia of the
temple of the Tabitha scene, and along the left edge and
lower centre area of St Peter distributingthegoods of the church
(Fig. 17; this last scene had already suffered severe damage
in the Quattrocento, when the drapery and feet of St John
were repainted on a new intonaco).7 To pretend that what
we see now are the frescoes as Masaccio, Masolino, and
Filippino left them would be a gross misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, at no time in the last two centuries has it been

*This article is adapted from a lecture given on 10th March, 1989 at the
symposium, The Great Age of Frescofrom Masaccio to Titian: Restoration and Interpretation, sponsored by Olivetti at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is much
indebted to conversations over the years with John Pope-Hennessy. My thanks
to Silvia Meloni Trkulja, Alessandro Cecchi and Antonio Quattore for providing me with black and white photographs for this article.
IG. VASARI: Le vite de' pia eccelentipittori, scultori et architettori. . . ed. G. MILANESI
Florence [1878-85] (hereafter cited as VASARI),Vol.II, p. 101.
2Ibid., p. 106.
3Ibid., p.299.

RUSKIN: Modern Painters, III, pt. IV, xviii ('The Teachers of Turner'), in The
Works of Ruskin, ed. E.T. COOKand A. WEDDERBURN,
London [1904], p.396.
5J. REYNOLDS:
Discourses,ed. R.R. WARK,New Haven and London [1975], discourse
XII, p.218
6A diagram showing the areas affected is included in u. BALDINI'S contribution
to L. BERTI:Masaccio, Florence [1988], p. 161. The brownish colour of the cloak
St Peter wears in the centre of the Tribute moneyshould be compared with the
original ochre one shown in the same scene.
7See the reproduction in BERTI,op.cit. above, p. 190, which shows the fresco after
cleaning and before inpainting.

WRITING from an enviable vantage point in the midsixteenth century, Vasari had no difficulty in pinpointing
the artists who had changed the course of Italian painting.
Giotto had opened the way in the years around 1300 by
overturning the 'manieragreca'.' But it was to Masaccio
that Vasari ascribed the crucial change: Masaccio, he
wrote, 'entirely supplanted Giotto's manner of treating
heads, drapery, architecture, nudes, colour, and foreshortening, which he created anew, bringing into light
the modern style that has been followed ever since by all
artists'.2 The work Vasari had in mind was, of course, the
cycle of frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, and he went on
to note that 'all the most celebrated sculptors and painters
who have come after Masaccio have become excellent
and illustrious by studying in this chapel: that is Fra
Giovanni da Fiesole, Fra Filippo [Lippi], Filippino [Lippi],
who completed it, Alesso Baldovinetti, Andrea del Castagno,
Andrea del Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro
Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Fra
Bartolommeo, Mariotto Albertinelli, and the most divine

Michelangelo'.3

4j.

5
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. D)ctail

7 he expul.ion ofAIdamand Eve from Paradi.se,by Masaccio. Fresco. (Brancacci Chapcl, S. Maria dcl Carmine, Florence).

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THE

BRANCACCI

CHAPEL

2. Peter repentant,by
Masolino. Sinopia.
(Brancacci Chapel,
S. Maria del Carmine,
Florence).
3. Pasces ovesmeas, by
Masolino. Sinopia.
(Brancacci Chapel,
S. Maria del Carmine,
Florence).
4. Decoration on the
window embrasure
and a fragmentary
scene, possibly the
Crucifixionof St Peter,
by Masolino and
Masaccio? Fresco.
(Brancacci Chapel,
S. Maria del Carmine,
Florence).

2.

possible as it is now to appreciate the scenes' spatial content


and Masaccio's innovative use of light. It is therefore timely
to reconsider the basis of Masaccio's art, his relationship
to his associate Masolino, and his contribution to fifteenthcentury painting. The very general comments that fbllow
are based on study of the frescoes from the scaffolding in
1986 and 1988 and then again in 1990 following the reopening of the chapel." While they touch on a number of
issues, they are hardly comprehensive, and are in no way
intended to encompass even the most recent literature.
The building that functioned as a burial chapel for the

Brancacciis structurallyunexceptional.Foundedin 1366/7


by Piero di Piuvichese Brancacci, and evidently completed
only in the late 1380s,9 it consisted of a conventional gothic
space with ribbed vaults, an entrance arch filling one wall,

'For the opportunity of studying the frescoes on the scaffolding I would like to
thank Ornella Casazza, who supervised the restoration of the chapel. She was
most generous in sharing the findings of the restoration and her ideas. Scc (:.
BALDINIand o. CASAZZA: La Cappella Brancacci, Milan [1990], for the most
extensive commentary to date on the cleaning, technique, and condition of the
frescoes and diagrams of the giornate.
A. MOLHO:
'The Brancacci Chapel: Studies in its Iconography and History',
-See
,Journal of the Warburgand CourtauldInstitutes, XL [ 1977], pp.72-73 and 80; and
L. PANDIMIGLIO:I Brancaccidi Firenze: Felice di Michele vir clarissimuse una consorteria
(Quaderni del restauro 3), 'lurin [1987], pp.13, 49. Piero di Piuvichese died inl
1366/7 providing for the foundation of the chapel, subsequently endowed by his
son Antonio. The first provision for decorating the chapel with paintings occurs
in the 1389 testament of Piero's second cousin, Serotino di Silvestro, who
requested the privilege of burial next to the chapel, then stated to be under the
patronage of Piero's nephew, Jacopo di Giovanni, and his brother, Michele di
Piuvichese (MOLHO,pp.81-82, and PANDIMIGLIO, pp.23-24). l'his privilege seems
to have been denied, for the Carmelites received only a small portion of the 50
florins promised.

4.

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3.

THE

BRANCACCI

CHAPEL

5. The temptationof Adam and Eve, by


Masolino. Fresco, 214 by 89 cm.
(Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del
Carmine, Florence).

5.

6. The expulsionof Adam and Evefrom


Paradise, by Masaccio. Fresco,
214 by 90 cm. (Brancacci Chapel,
S. Maria del Carmine, Florence).

6.

two uninterrupted lateral walls, and a back wall divided


by a biforate window. The fresco cycle, undertaken during
the period in which Felice di Michele Brancacci had
patronal rights to the chapel,'0 was arranged in three horizontal bands, the uppermost of which- comprising the
lunettes was destroyed between 1746 and 1748, when a
decorated vault was created." Despite this loss and some
ambiguities in Vasari's description, the programme as it
was originally conceived can now be reconstructed with a
fair degree of accuracy, thanks to the recovery of the sinopie
of the two scenes on either side of the window (Figs.2 and 3),

of fragments of a heretofore unrecorded scene beneath the


window (Fig.4), and of elements of the decorative borders on
the embrasures (Fig.4). According to Vasari, the triangularshaped areas of the vault contained images of the four
evangelists. In the lunette on the upper left wall was shown
the Calling of St Peter (Matthew 4:18-20) - a later copy of
this scene exists.12 To the left of the window, on the back
wall, was depicted Peter grieving after having denied Christ
(Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:62), and to the right Christcharging Peter to 'Feed my sheep' (John 21:15-17). The sinopie of
these two scenes were first published by Ornella Casazza in

"'Felice inherited rights to the chapel at his father's death in 1394. There is,
however, no definitive proof that he actually commissionedthe cycle: see MOLHO,
identified the patron as Antonio
(i.e.
loc.cil.above, pp.74-76. VASARI
Brancacc(i an
the son of Piero di Piuvichecse),who died between 1383 and 1389,
leaving
endowment of 200 florins for the chapel (presumably used for its construction:
op.Cil.above, pp.25, 49-51). The fact
see MOHLO,pp.80-81, and PANDIMI(;LIO,
that in 1389 Scrotino di Silvestro Brancacci hoped to secure burial privilegesby
contributing 50 florins towards the decoration of the chapel (see note 9 above),
may indicate that a plan was in hand. Recently, M. BOSKOVITs
('I1 percorsodi
Masolino: Precisazioni sulla cronologia e sul catalogo', Arte cristiana,no.718
[19871, pp.55-57) has argued that Antonio's executors were responsiblefor the
commission, but this is without documentary support. It stands to reason that

Felice, as patron of the chapel, was responsiblefor overseeing any work carried
out in it.
"A drawing of the chapel, hypothetically reconstructed, is reproduced in
o. CASAZZA:'I1 cilo delle storic di San Pietro c la "historia salutis". Nuove
lettura della cappella Brancacci', Criticad'arte,LI, n.9 [1986], p.87. It contains
errors(the scene beneath the window makesno allowancefor the slant of the sill),
and the scaled diagram reproducedby L.WATKINS('Technical Observationson
des Kunsthistorischen
the Frescoesof the Brancacci Chapel', Mitteilungen
Institutes
in Florenz,17 [1973], p.67) is more accurate, although not definitive.
'2Published by R. LONGHI('Fatti di Masolino e di Masaccio', (ritica d'arte,
nos.3-4 [1940], p.146), it was included in the exhibition, L'Ethdi Masaccio:II
a Firenze,Palazzo Vccchio, Florence [1990], no.45.
primoQuattrocento

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THE

BRANCACCI

1986.13 The Pasce ovesmeasis not mentioned by Vasari, but


it was of crucial theological importance to the cycle, since it
underscored Peter's special position among the apostles.14
According to Vasari, the right-hand lunette contained
Christ walking on the water and extendinghis hand to Peter
(Matthew 14:23-32) - the scene commonly known as the
Navicella. A mosaic of this subject, designed by Giotto, decorated the portico of old St Peter's in Rome, and Masolino's
lunette probably conformed to the compositional features
of that work. This scene was another symbol of Papal
authority. The middle band of frescoes survives intact,
Petertopay
containing Masaccio's scene of Christcommanding
the tributemoneyat Capernaum(Matthew 17:24-27; Fig.9),
Masolino's of Peter preaching to the multitudes (Acts 2:14;
Fig.10), Peter baptising (Acts 2:41; Fig.12) by Masaccio,
and Masolino's combined depiction of PeterandJohn healing
the lame man beforethe Templeat Jerusalem (Acts 3:2-8) and
the Raising of Tabitha (Acts 9:36-42; Fig. 11). The left wall
of the bottom tier has the apocryphal story of Peter raising
the son of Theophilusat Antioch and the Chairing of St Peter
(Fig.16), a work begun by Masaccio, but completed or
repaired by Filippino Lippi in the 1480s. Filippino's contribution to this fresco is now no longer problematic, for
his less rigorous, though wonderfully delicate, system of
modelling is readily distinguishable from Masaccio's, and
the division proposed in Berti's monograph of 1964 can be
confirmed: the innovative architecture on the left, for
example, is due to Masaccio.15 Whether this fresco was
actually defaced and partly destroyed after the exile of
Felice Brancacci in 1435, as is often stated,'6 whether the
figures added by Filippino were merely a means of updating the scene through the insertion of further portraits, or
whether the fresco was actually abandoned incomplete following Masaccio's transfer to Rome, still seems to me open
to debate. It may be worth noting that one of the portrait
heads added by Filippino has been conspicuously vandalised
(the figure behind Theophilus's son). On the window wall
are Masaccio's scenes of Peter healing with his shadow (Acts
5:15; Fig. 15) and Peter distributing the goods of the church
(Acts 4:35-5:10; Fig.17), while on the adjacent right wall
Filippino Lippi depicted the combined apocryphal scenes
of Peterand Paul beforeNero with SimonMagus and the Crucifixion of Peter. Whether both subjects of Filippino's scene
were part of the original scheme is not certain, for the extremely fragmentary fresco discovered beneath the window
has been identified as the
- apparently by Masaccio
Cruc/ifxionof St Peter." If this identification is correct, then
it is possible that a depiction of Peter occupying the Chair
in Rome (an event alluded to byJacopo da Voragine) was
13(cASAZZA, loc.cit. at note aIbove,
11
pp.69-70. See also BALDINI,loc.cit. at note 6
above, pp.91ft:
'4The discovery of this sinopiaputs an end to the speculation on the subject of
this scene, so strangely overlooked by Vasari. Recent opinion favoured a
depiction of St Peter denying Christ as a logical companion to his repentance.
loc.cit.at note 9 above, p.53, rightly thought the absence of this scene
MOLHO,
requiredan explanation, so central is it to any Petrine cycle.
'"'Thishad been doubted in M.MEISS:'Masaccio and the Early Renaissance:The
Circular Plan', Acts of the TwentiethInternational
Congressof the Historyof Art,
Princeton [1963], p. 145.
'6This idea was developed by H. BROCKHAUS
('Die Brancacci-Kapellein Florenz',
desKunsthistorischen
Institutesin Florenz,3 [1919-32], pp. 169-78), and
Mitteilungen
has gained wide acceptance. See, for example, P. MELLER:'La Capella Brancacci:
problemi ritrattistici ed iconografici', Acropoli,III [1960-61], pp.197ff.; and
and CASAZZA,
BALDINI
op.cit.at note 8 above, pp.194, 306, 322.
'La Cappella
"7SeeCASAZZA,
loc.cit. at note 11 above, p.69, and U. BALDINI:
Brancacci nella Chiesa del Carmine a Firenze', Quadernidel Restauro,1 [1984],

CHAPEL

7. Head,by Masolino. Fresco. (BrancacciChapel, S. Maria del Carmine,


Florence).

intended as a counterpart to his chairing in Antioch on the


opposite wall. In the newly exposed fresco, however, (Fig.4)
there is no evidence of either of the pyramids traditionally
used to locate Peter's crucifixion, and the shape of the picture field is an odd one for so important an episode. It
should not be forgotten that Vasari mentions a 'liberaregli
infermi', which might just refer to this scene (the event,
from Acts 5:16, also relates textually to the two flanking
scenes). Then, on the piers of the entrance arch (which was
probably also decorated, possibly with medallions with
heads of saints)18 are shown the Fall, by Masolino, and
the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, by Masaccio
(Figs.5 and 6), with, below them, Paul visiting Peter in
prisonat Antioch,and Peterfreedfrom prisonin Jerusalem(Acts
12:6-10), both by Filippino Lippi.
This was the most extensive Petrine cycle produced in
the fifteenth century, and it can hardly be coincidental
op.cit. at note 8 above, pp.295-96.
pp.22-23; and BALDINIand CASAZZA,
'8This has been suggested, for example, by WATKINS, loc.cit. at note 11 above,
p.67.
9"The two most authoritative studies of the iconography of the frescoes are by
MOLHO,loc.cit. at note 9 above, and A. DEBOLD-VONKRITTER:Studien zum
Petruszyklus in der Brancaccikapelle,Berlin [1975], the conclusions of which are
masterfully summarised and discussed in E. BORSOOK: The Mural Painters qf
Tuscany, Oxford [1980], pp.63-67. Molho describes the historical issues that
must have determined the commission, and emphasises the topical significance
of the various scenes. Debold-von Kritter gives a highly convincing theological
exegesis not only for the individual scenes but for the overall scheme. The two
readings are not mutually exclusive. Neither author was able to make use of the
other's work, but both place strong emphasis on Nicholas of Lyra's commentaries,
a copy of which was in the Carmine. See also the comments ofBOSKOVITS
(loc.cit.
at note 10 above, pp.63-64 note 39), and c. GILBERT ('Some Special Images for
Carmelites c. 1330-1430', in Christianity and the Renaissance, ed. T. VERDONand
HENDERSON, Syracuse [1990], pp.192-95.)

8
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THE

BRANCACCI

8. Head, by Masaccio. Fresco. (Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine,

Florence).

that it was conceived at a time when Papal authority,


already questioned by John Wycliffe and John Hus, was
also being contested by the conciliar movement.19 The
Carmelites were staunch supporters of the papacy - and so,
it seems, was the patron of the chapel Felice Brancacci.20
Indeed, members of the Carmelite order- which traced its
origins to the Old Testament Prophet Elijah -- are shown
listening to St Peter preach, and they witness his enthronement at Antioch an event that marks both Peter's position
as head of the Church and the institution of the tonsure
(Fig. 16). In three of the scenes by Masaccio and Masolino Peter preaching, Peter baptising and Peter raising the son of
Theophilus, there are also unmistakable portraits among
the bystanders. This was not a novel feature: portraits had
been included in an earlier fresco cycle in the Carmine itself by the late gothic artist Starnina, who distinguished
them from the historical figures by the use of contemporary
dress. It should, however, be noted that there is no firm
basis fbr the widely accepted ideai originating with
Vasari's identification of one of the apostles in the Tribute

2"See DEBOLD-VONKRITTER,op.cit. at note 19 above, pp.152ff., and MOHLO,


loc.cit. at note 9 above, pp.67-69, 77-78.
2'l'he standard study on the identification of the portraits is MELLER,loc.cit. at
note 16 above, pp.186-227; 273-312. The identifications are reviewed in the
pertinent entries of BALDINIand CASAZZA,
op.cit. at note 8 above.
22'l'his theme underlies the persuasive analysis ofDEBOLD-VONKRITTER,
op.Cit.at
note 19 above, pp.121-45 (especially pp.141-42); see also BORSOOK, op.Cit. at
note 19 above; and BALDINIand CASAZZA,
op.Cit.at note 8 above, pp.319-22.
23DEBOLD-VONKRITTER, op.cit. at note 19 above, pp. 129-30, cites texts underscoring
a close symbolic connexion between Peter paying the tribute money and
Adam's sin.
24This was emphasised by WATKINS,
loc.cit. at note 11 above, p.68.

CHAPEL

that some of' the


money as a self-portrait of Masaccio
apostles and beggars are disguised portraits of Masolino,
Donatello and Brunelleschi.2'
Moreover, whatever political or biographical allusions
there may be in some of the scenes (and it seems to me
that much of what has been written on these lines is based
more on assumptions about how contemporaries viewed
these fresco cycles than on probability), the overriding
theme of the cycle is that of salvation through the Church,
as symbolised by St Peter."22This is the most obvious reason
for the appearance of Adam and Eve on the two piers.
They bracket the cycle in the same way in which the
depiction of the Last Judgement above the entrance arch
in the church of S. Francesco at Arezzo introduces Piero
della Francesca's fresco cycle treating Redemption through
the True Cross."2 And, as in that celebrated cycle, so here
strict narrative sequence was not the governing factor.
Rather, the scenes are arranged so that theological allusions
are underscored by visual analogies.24 The fact that the
two lunettes opposite each other showed seascapes has frequently been remarked (in one, Peter is chosen by Christ;
in the other he is saved by Christ). But no less significant
are the landscape settings of Peterpreachingand Peterhaptising; the city-scapes (with their unified perspective) of'Peter
healing with his shadow and Peter distributingthe goods of the
Church;or the courtyards of Peterraisingtheson qf Theophilus
and Peter and Simon Magus. There can be no doubt that
these are meant to be read as complementary pairs. Peter's
unique ability to heal by means of his shadow was viewed
as an illustration of his position as apostolusprincipalis,while
the distribution of the goods established his authority in
the early Church.25 The scenes of him preaching and
baptising illustrate the potestatespredicandiet baptizandiwith
which all the apostles were charged by Christ (Matthew
28:19), but which are here performed by Peter alone."2
The Pasceovesmeas,in which Christ thrice questions Peter's
love of him and thrice charges him to 'feed my sheep' is, of
course, directly related to Peter's repentance after having
thrice denied Christ.27 Beyond such complementary pairs,
it might be noted that Jacopo da Voragine declares Peter
deserving of three feasts 'because he was raised above the
other apostles in three ways: in authority, in the love of
Christ, and in the power to work miracles'.'2 This triad
roughly corresponds to the dominant themes of each of
the three walls, for on one Peter is repeatedly exalted as
Christ's designated leader,29 on another his ministry is
illustrated (appropriately, this is the wall with the Pasce
ovesmeas), while the third (opened by the NJavicellain which
Christ saves Peter as he walks on the water) emphasises his
miraculous powers."? This concern for a thematic and
visual unity over strict narrative sequence is characteristic
of a number of fifteenth-century fresco cycles (Piero della

KRITTER,op.cit. at note 19 above, pp.123-24. MOLHO(10c.cil.


25See DEBOLD-VON
at note 9 above, pp.60-61) points out that the Biblical account of Ananias was
used by opponents of the Papacy, and that Masaccio's depiction, with Peter
alone distributing alms, seems conceived in direct response to these arguments.
26Ibid., p.60.
27See the commentary on this subject in DEBOLD-VON KRITTER, op.Cit.at note 19
above, pp. 140-41.
28J. DE VORAGINE: The GoldenLegend, tr. and ed. G. RYAN and H. RIPPERGER, New
York [1941], p. 170.
29The crucial scene is the Tribute money, which MEISS(loc.cit. at note 15 above,
p. 126) has shown conveys the same meaning as the giving of the keys to St Peter.
30BORSOOK,op.cit. at note 19 above, p.64, remarks on the appositeness of Voragine's
comments.

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THE

BRANCACCI

Francesca's cycle of the True Cross in Arezzo and Filippo


Lippi's paired lives of Sts Stephen and John the Baptist in
Prato might be cited), and it seems to mark a major shift
in the way such cycles were perceived and understood by
fifteenth-century viewers.
It is known from a clause in Felice Brancacci's Will of
1432 that, for some reason, the frescoes were left unfinished.3 In 1435 Felice was exiled by the Medicean government, and it is probably after that date that the highly
venerated thirteenth-century painting of the Madonna del
Popolo was placed in the chapel, partially covering the
fresco beneath the window.2 (Before this it is just conceivable that Donatello's marble relief of Christgiving thekeysto
Peter in the Victoria and Albert Museum- the most important Petrine episode missing from the cycle decorated
the altar.):33 After 1435 the chapel is most frequently

CHAPEL

9. Thetributemoney,by Masaccio. Fresco, 247 by 597 cm. (BrancacciChapel,


S. Maria del Carmine, Florence).

tothemultitudes,
10. Peterpreaching
by Masolino and Masaccio?Fresco,
247 by 168 cm. (BrancacciChapel, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence).

' MOLHO(loc.cit. at note 9 above, pp.51, 92), transcribes the testament.


I''I'he picture has been removed from its baroque frame, cleaned, and reinstalled. Despite assumptions to the contrary, there are no certain notices of it
in the Brancacci Chapel prior to 1460, and the report that it was in the chapel
by 1422 seems to be no more than supposition: see MOLHO,loc.cit. at note 9
above, pp.82-83, for a review of the literature and documents. u. PROCACCI
('L'Incendio della Chiesa del Carmine del 1771', Rivista d'arte, 14 [ 1932], p.157)
suggested that it may originally have been intended for the high altar, which
seems plausible. In 1315 Andrea Corsini was converted in front of the image,
described as on the altar of the Virgin (see MOLHO,p.82), which was the
dedication of the high altar (PROCACCI,
p. 176). VASARI (op.cit. at note 1 above,
p.41) states that the high altar-piece was painted by Domenico di Bartolo, and
this is likely to have taken place about 1436: see c. STREHLKE,in Painting in
RenaissanceSiena: 1420-1500, exh.cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
[1988], pp.250-54. The commissioning of a new altar-piece from Domenico di
Bartolo would have provided the pretext for the removal of the old image to the
Brancacci Chapel, whose patron had been exiled.
Donatello's Relief of the
3'IThis hypothesis, first advanced in j. POPE-HENNESSY:
Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter, London [ 1949], and since then
widely accepted, is reviewed in full in H.W. JANSON:The Sculpture of Donatello,
Princeton [1963], pp.92-95. DEBOLD-VONKRITTER (Op.cit. at note 19 above,
pp. 147-51) advances the hypothesis that the relief was incorporated as a predella
for the Madonna del Popolo, but this seems unlikely if only because that image was
probably only placed in the chapel after 1435/36 (see note 32 above). POPEHENNESSY also suggested that the marble relief served as a predella, but in view
of the discovery of a fresco below the window that severely limited the height of
any object on the altar, it could equally well have served as a dossal. One might
imagine it being sold to the Medici by the Carmelites following the transfer of
the Madonna del Popolo to the chapel; it is mentioned in the 1492 inventory of the
Medici I'Palace.

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THE

BRANCACCI

ohn healing the lame man beforethe templeat Jerusalem and the raising of
11. Peter
Masolino. Fresco, 247 by 588 cm. (Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del
Tabitha, by
and,
Carmine, Florence).

12. Peter baptising, by Masaccio and Masolino? Fresco, 247 by 172 cm.
(Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence).

CHAPEL

referred to as the Cappelladella VergineMaria, and it was in


honour of this image that a laywomen's confraternity was
established in 1460.34 Only in 1474 did the Brancacci
return to Florence, and only after 1480 was the cycle
completed by Filippino Lippi.
Much attention - some may think too much has focused
on the dating and relative chronology of the individual
frescoes, and on the respective contributions of Masaccio
and Masolino. The time span involved is extremely narrow
- from about 1425 to 1428 -- so the matter might seem
inconsequential. And yet, for anyone interested in the
origins of renaissance art and the way a collaborative
project between two quite individual artists worked, it is
of primary importance. Moreover, the discoveries made
during restoration bear directly on these issues and make
a review of the evidence worthwhile.
According to Vasari, the chapel decorations were begun
by Masolino and then continued by Masaccio, but Ornella
Casazza and Umberto Baldini have made a case fobrascribing one of the newly discovered sinopiefrom the lunettes to
Masaccio, thereby suggesting that the whole cycle was a
joint undertaking. 3 I remain unconvinced by their division
of hands, for sinopiecan differ widely in character depending
at which stage during the creation of a work they were
drawn. It is, for example, possible that the minor differences between the sinopiaof the Pasce ovesmeas (Fig.3) and
the RepentantPeter (Fig.2) are the result of Masolino having
previously elaborated one composition more carefully on
paper (the Pasce ovesmeas), as opposed to working out the
other directly on the intonaco.In other words, the sinopiaof
Petermay simply be a more exploratory drawing
the Repentant
by Masolino than that for the Pasce ovesmeas, which compares closely with Masolino's sinopie at Empoli.36 What
seems to me far more decisive for our understanding of the

loc.cil. at note 9 above, p.83, fbr the relative documents.


34See, again, MOLHO,
loc.cil. at note 11 above, BALDINI,loc.cil. at note 17 above, and
at note 8 above, pp.292, 323. LONGHI (10C.cil. at note
BALDINIand CASAZZA,
op.Cit.
12 above, p. 154) also believed the cycle to be a joint commission.
36BERTI, op.cit. at note 6 above, p.37, and L. BERTI and R. FOGGI (MasacCio,
Florence [1989], pp. 18, 88), do not accept Baldini's division of hands.

35CASAZZA,

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THE

BRANCACCI

13. Detail of Fig. 12 before cleaning.

initial commission and the point at which Masaccio intervened is the surviving decoration on the embrasures (Fig.4)
again first published by Baldini.":7
The window divides the lunette scenes, and its decorative
motifs would have been determined at the outset. They
consist of a regular pattern of bristling tendrils within a

17U. BALDINI: 'Nuovi atf'rschi nella Cappella Brancacci: Masaccio and Masolino',
Critica d'Arte, XLIX, no.1 [1984], pp.65-72; idem, loc.cit. at notes 6 and 17
above; and idem: 'Dcl "'Iributo" e altro del Masaccio', Critica d'arte, LIV, no.20
[1989], pp.32-33; and BALDINIand CASAZZA, op.cit. at note 8 above, pp.292-96.
Here again, Baldini draws what seems to me an unconvincing distinction of
hands between the fragmentary remains, pointing out that according to the
evidence of the giornate, the left embrasure, including the tondo with the head
ascribed to Masolino, was painted after St Peterpreaching, followed by the border
beneath the window, and then the right hand embrasure above the tondo that
he ascribes to Masaccio. Peter baptising was then painted, followed by the lower
left embrasure decoration, the fragmentary scene beneath the window, and the
right tondo and lower portion of the embrasure, establishing a regular rhythm.
'he technical cvidence thus allows the sort of division of hands made by
Baldini, but I note that his attribution of the weaker of the two heads depicted
in the embrasures to Masaccio is not accepted by E. WAKAYAMA: 'Masolino o
non Masolino: problemi di attribuzione', Arte cristiana, 719 [1987], pp.726-27;
BERTI, op.cit. at note 6 above, p.37; BERTIand FOGGI,op.cit. at note 36 above,
p. 19, or by BOSKOVITS,loc.cit. at note 10 above, p.64 note 41. The attribution of
one of the heads to Masaccio does not affect the arguments put forward here,

CHAPEL

rectangular field, punctuated by circular feigned marble


frames which enclose bust-length heads (Figs.7 and 8).
This is identical to the scheme Masolino employed in the
embrasures of his fresco cycle of' 1424 at Empoli and also to
that in his contemporaneous frescoed Pielh at the Collegiata
at Empoli.38 I find it difficult to believe that this typically
gothic ornamental scheme would have been adopted if'
there had been any intention to employ classical mouldings
and Corinthian pilasters to frame the large, rectangular
scenes of the middle and lower tiers. The window decoration bears the same relationship to these Brunelleschian
pilasters as the gothic scheme devised by Bicci di Lorenzo
for the vault of S. Francesco at Arezzo bears to the renaissance motifs Piero della Francesca introduced after Bicci's
death. Indeed, Bicci's vocabulary is almost identical to
Masolino's, which is not surprising, since Bicci belonged to
an only slightly older generation. Just as at Arezzo these
differences of style point to a change in the directing hand,
so in the Brancacci chapel the embrasure decoration uncovered in the restoration assures us that there was a
change in direction following completion of the vaults and
lunettes, a change for which only Masaccio not Masolino
-can have been responsible.3"
Masolino was an immensely gifted artist. This is amply
underscored by the cleaning, from which he emerges as a
far more consistent artistic personality than past criticism
has, perhaps, allowed; but there is nothing in his surviving
work to suggest that he could, on his own, have made the
creative leap necessary to bridge the gap that separates his
earlier pictures from the surviving frescoes in the Brancacci
Chapel. This becomes evident if one examines the work
he undertook in Empoli in 1424. In his frescoed lunette
above a door in the church of S. Stefano which shows the
Madonna and Child within a gothic architectural framework (Fig.23), the architecture -- impressive in itself is
empirically foreshortened in accordance with a low viewing
point, but the figures are portrayed as though seen straight
on, with the child standing on his toes: in other words, the
figures and the architecture have been conceived as independent elements and are spatially unrelated (this is also
true of his other fragmentary fresco in S. Stefano usually
identified as showing St Ivo and his pupils). The use of an
empirically foreshortened architectural framework had a
long tradition in Florentine art, but the most pertinent
analogy is with some saints depicted in ambitious architectural tabernacles by Starnina in the Carmine in 1404
(Fig.22).40 Now, according to Vasari, Starnina was

which concern the authorship of the decorative components rather than the
person(s) responsible for painting them. It is worth noting that a cartoon was
employed in painting some of the acanthus decoration, and even Baldini allows
that the right hand tondo may be based on a cartoon by Masolino. WAKAYAMA
(p. 134 note 19), suggests the possibility of an assistant.
payment to Masolino was published in G. POGGI:'Masolino e la compagnia
T8'1I'he
della croce in Empoli', Rivista d'arte, III [1905], p.48. T'he remaining sinopie of
the fresco cycle are examined in B. COLE: 'A Reconstruction of Masolino's True
Cross Cycle in S. Stefano, Empoli', Mitteilungen des KunsthistorischenInstitutes in
Florenz, XIII [1967], pp.289-300. Masolino's activity in Empoli is conveniently
reviewed in the exhibition catalogue, Masolino a Empoli, held in S. Stefano,

Empoli [1987].
39The various opinions voiced on this matter are conveniently summarised by
BOSKOVITS(loc.cit. at note 10 above, p.63 note 31), who favours a collaborative
effort from the outset (p.57). See also L. BERTI: L'Opera completa di Masaccio,
Milan [19861, pp.92-93, for a review of opinons.
40On Starnina's work in the Carmine see c. SYRE: Studien um "Maestro del
Bambino Vispo" und Starnina, Bonn [1979], pp.41-46, and j. VAN WAADENOIJEN:
Starnina e il gotico internazionalea Firenze, Florence t1983], pp.26-27.

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THE

BRANCACCI

Masolino's teacher, and it is surely significant that as late


as 1424 Masolino still applied a decorative vocabulary
and system of projection common to late gothic painting.
The same is true of his Empoli Pietl, which is a softer,
somewhat more rationalised version of Lorenzo Monaco's
visionary painting of two decades earlier, now in the
Accademia.
One of the few surviving painted portions of the chapel
Masolino decorated in S. Stefano, Empoli, in 1424 is a
small niche, on the back wall of which is depicted a still
life of shelves stocked with missals and communion cruets
of wine and water (there are Trecento precedents for this
motif). The casual approach to spatial projection and
delicately described shadows cast by the various objects something ofa novelty at this date reveal the unmistakable influence of Gentile da Fabriano, who introduced
this descriptive approach to painting in Florence around
1420.41 The shadows are employed to enhance the quality
of verisimilitude, but they play only a minor r61lein defining the spatial configuration of the composition, and there
is nothing to suggest a systematic study of their projection.
Masolino never completely overcame this essentially gothic
manner of visualising objects in isolation. Thus, in the
cleaned scene of the Raising of Tabitha (Fig. 11), the brilliantly highlighted rocks that lie scattered about the vast,
unarticulated square, like so many semi-precious stones,
have the character of arresting, still life elements, differing
markedly in this respect from those in Masaccio's Tribute
money(Fig.9), which are simply incidental details. No less
indicative is the evidence that Masolino continued to use
flat embellishments on the rich costumes of his figures and
to prefer varied, decorative colours for his architecture.42
The cleaning has also accentuated the contrast between
Masolino's delicately painted and beautifully abstract figures of Adam and Eve (Fig.5), suspended rather than
standing in a timeless, airless environment (there are, however, traces of lcaves and flowers on the black background
that originally defined the ground plane), and those naturalistically conceived, tragic figures Masaccio depicts making
their sorrowful way into a barren, hostile world (Fig.6), their
nakedness, grief and their position in space - dramatised
by a relentless beam of light that is meaningfully played
against supernatural rays (originally gilt) that issue from
the gates of Paradise.
On the occasions I was on the scaffolding, I was impressed
by the way in which the two artists seem consciously to
have allocated their work so as to minimise their fundamental differences of approach.43 Apart from the fact,
perhaps not altogether incidental, that Masolino painted
our first parents in Paradise while Masaccio portrayed
their first steps into the real world, there is the careful
alternation by which, on one side of the chapel, Masaccio's
Tributemoneyis juxtaposed with Masolino's St Peterpreaching,
and, on the opposite side, Masolino's Raising of Tabitha
with Masaccio's St Peterbaplising.(One of the more remark-

41Gentile left Brescia in September 1419 to join Martin V, then in Florence. He


is first documented in Florence between 5th August and 24th October 1420: see
K. CHRISTIANSEN:
Gentileda Fabriano, Ithaca [1982], pp. 160-62, docs.IV, VI.
42BALDINI and CASAZZA(op.cit. at note 8 above), p. 127, give an account of the
condition of the scene and the original effect of the brocades worn by one of the
'messengers' and bystanders in the scene of Tabitha's resurrection.

CHAPEL

14. Detail of Fig. 11.

able details to emerge from the cleaning is Masaccio's


depiction of water splashing off the head of the devout,
kneeling neophyte into the river below in a way that must
have astounded the artist's contemporaries and makes
one regret even more the loss of other, similarly observed
details.) To my eye, the matter goes even further. Prior to
the cleaning, I had never been bothered by the landscape
settings behind Masolino's scene of St Peterpreachingand
Masaccio's of St Peter baptising (Figs. 10 and 12), but I am
now struck by the way those delicate, ant-hill formations
behind Masaccio's figures resemble the landscapes of
Masolino's frescoes in Castiglione Olona of some ten years
later (for example, in the Baptismof Christin the baptistry).
On the other hand, the more rugged, freely defined wooded
slopes behind Masolino's figures seem to me indistinguishable from those in the Tributemoney.With the appearance
of the bit of landscape to the right of the building in the
Tributemoney(Fig.9) - another of the surprising discoveries
of the cleaning - we can now appreciate that the landscape

43This has, of course, been commented on by others, most recently by CASAZZA,


(op.cit. at note 11 above, pp.69-84), BALDINI and CASAZZA(op.Cit. at note 8
above, pp.322-24), and BOSKOVITS
(loc.cil. at note 10 above, p.57). Casazza
argues for a fairly rigid division, decided upon by the two artists at the inception
of the cycle. Although my own analysis is significantly simpler than LONGHI'S
(loc.cit. at note 12 above, pp. 145-91) it shares his less schematic approach to the
matter of artistic collaboration.

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TH F

B R A N CACCI

CHAPEL

15. Peter hrealini4


iwith hi.sshadow, by Masaccio. Fresco, 232 by 162 cm. (Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria dcl Carmine, Florcnce).

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THE

BRANCACCI

CHAPEL

16. PeterraisingthesonoqfJheophilus
at AntiochandthechairingolfStPeter,by Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. Fresco, 232 by 597 cm. (BrancacciChapel, S. Maria dl
Carmine, Florl(nc((:).

in Masolino's scene (Fig. 10) was planned as a continuation


of that in the Tributemoney,interrupted by the corinthian
pilaster in the corner. This was an idea taken up by Sassetta
in the predella of his altar-piece of the Madonnaof the snow
painted in 1430-32, where the landscapes of adjacent scenes
are shown with a common horizon.44 I believe, in fact,
that this wrap-around landscape was painted by Masaccio,
and it is worth noting that the landscape background of
the St Peterpreachingis painted on the same giornata as the
framing pilaster in the Tributemoney.45This also occurs in
reverse, in Masaccio's scene of St Peterbaptising(Fig.12), in
which the landscape was painted, I believe, by Masolino.46
On reflection, this seems a perfectly natural way of unifying
the cycle as a whole. The Masolinesque head of Christ in
Masaccio's Tributemoney,whose authorship has long been
disputed,47 is perhaps the outcome of a similar attempt to
equalise two inherently different approaches to painting,
though whether it was actually painted by Masolino - as
I think probable
cannot be stated with certainty.48 I
would, however, like to point out that both Masaccio and

Masolino had assistants.49 This is worth bearing in mind


in evaluating such passages as the newly discovered heads
in the decorative borders of the embrasures and even the
portrait-like heads at the left of Masolino's fresco of St Peter
preaching:their authorship, too, has long been disputed.50
Although they are evidently painted on the same giornataas
the head of St Peter,"' they lack both the delicacy of the
other portraits (including those of two Carmelites) in the
same scene and the structural analysis characteristic of
those by Masaccio. They are curiously similar in handling
and typology to the heads of two angels in a small picture in
the Horne Museum in Florence (Fig.20) that, I believe, is
one of the earliest- and certainly one of the most ambitious
- works by Masaccio's younger brother Scheggia52 (this
little painting suggests, in fact, that Scheggia was closely
involved with his brother's experiments at this time, something we might assume from the descoda parto in Berlin,
the reverse side of which was, in my opinion, also painted
by Scheggia).
The point of these remarks is not to argue for a rigid

44I remarked upon this fact in Paintingin Renaissance


Siena, cited at note 32
above, p.8.
45IThispoint was made by WATKINS,loc.cit at note 11 above, pp.65-74. See now
the diagram in BALDINIand CASAZZA,op.cit.at note 8 above, p.352. Watkins
suggested the possibilitythat the backgroundin the Baptismwas by Masolino.
46I am pleased to learn that these observations, which I made to Ornella
Casazza in 1986, have also been expressed by Luciano Bellosi and are accepted
and FOGGI(op.cit.at note
by BERTI(op.cit.at note 6 above, pp.44-45), and BERTI
36 above, pp. 19, 104).
47'l'hedebate over this seemingly insignificant detail - which, however, carries
implications for the dating of the fresco - was instigated by LONGHI(loc.cit.at
note 12 above, pp. 160-61). For a review of opinions, see BERTI,op.cit.at note 39
above, p.95. . C(ASAZZA:
Masaccioe la CappellaBrancacci,Florence [1990], p.26,
BALDINI,loc.cit.at note 37 above, pp.33-36, and BALDINIand CASAZZA,
op.cit.at
note 8 above, p.43, have insisted that there are no technical differencesbetween
the head of Christ and the apostles, but I am not at all convinced by the
loc.cit.at note 37 above, pp. 125-26.
comparisons:see WAKAYAMA,
48Christ'shead is painted on a separate giornata,but it was not the last element
in the fresco. The giornatawith the pink cloak of Christ, above the waist but not
including his right hand, overlaps the giornatawith the head. Taken together,
the figure of Christ is riddled with inconsistenciesthat seem to me to argue for
some sort oftcollaboration.The section with the hand of the tax collector is, for
example, of a higher order, and the fiet of Christ are modelled with a strength
lacking in the head. The appearance of this figure, of course, is crucial to the
visual unity of the cycle. T'h blue of the cloak is here, as elsewhere in the cycle,
badly damaged.

49In Pisa Masaccio's assistantwas Andrea di Giusto, and it stands to reason that

his younger brother,Scheggia, occasionally worked with him as well. It is probable that Paolo Schiavo and Vecchietta both later workedwith Masolino.
50LONGHI
(loc.cit.at note 12 above, pp.155-56) ascribedthem to Masaccio, which
now seems incredible, given the comparison with the portraits in the St Peter
baptisingand the Raisingof theson of Theophilus
(Longhi believed that Filippino
was responsiblefor the portraitheadsin the Baptising,but this is flatlycontradicted
by the sequence of the giornate).
loc.cit.at note 11, p.71) showed the
diagram (published in WATKINS,
TI'orriti's
heads on a separate giornata,but this is denied by CASAZZA,op.cit. at note 47
above, p.33, and BALDINIand CASAZZA,
op.cit.at note 8 above, pp.83, 352.
52'l'he picture is ascribed to the Fucecchio Master (which is to say, to Schcggia)
in R. VAN MARLE: The Development
of theItalianSchoolsof Painting,Vol.XVI, ''he
Hague [1937], p.194. It appears in Berenson's lists of' 1932 (p.40) and 1963
(p.63) as a late work of Francesco di Antonio (under this name Berenson
grouped works by the so-called Master of the Adimari Cassone/Fucecchio
Master). Curiously, the irrelevant attribution to Boccati is retained in F. ROSSI:
II MuseoHornea Firenze,Milan [1967], p.145. P. ZAMPETTI (GiovanniBoccati,
Milan [1971], Fig.139) inexplicably calls it Marchigian and gives its location as
unknown. Scheggia's career - or at least the earlier part of it (he lived until
1486) - now assumes a far more interesting character thanks to Margaret
Haines'sdemonstrationthat he was involved with the decorationof the 'Sacrestia
delle Messe' of the cathedral of Florence: see M. HAINES:
The "Sacrestiadelle
Messe" of the FlorentineCathedral,Florence [1983], pp.62-63, and 105-06. The
Horne picture, which may date as early as c. 1430, shows Scheggia following in
the footstepsof his brother and reflecting,in a minor key, the workof Donatello
and Bruncllcschi.

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THE

BRANCACCI

17. Peter distributingthegoods of the Church,by Masaccio. Fresco, 232 by 157 cm.
(Brancacci Chapcl, S. Maria dcl Carmine, Ftlorcncc).

division of hands but, rather, to underscore the profbund


diflercnces marking the approaches of the two principal
artists involved in the fresco cycle and the imaginative
ways they compcnsated f'r them. It is this very close collab)oration that enables the frescoes to be dated with some
accuracy, flir Masolino can hardly have been employed
on tlhem prior to 1425, when he completed his work at
Empoli. In July 1425 he was, significantly, paid fbr painting props fbr the annual mystery play in the Carmine,"'

"The payment was published by P. CAIOLI


in Rivistastoricacarmelitana,
I [1929],
p.96.
4()On 1IstSeptember 1425 Masolino conveyed power of attorney to his banker,
Antonio Piero Benizi: see R. FREMANTLE:
'Some New Masolino Documents',
THE BUIRLIN(;IT()NMAGAZINE, CXVII [1975], p.659.
5See M()I.H(), o.Ci. at note 9 above, p)p.83-85.
5"Starnina decorated the chapel of St Jerome in the Carmine, of which only
fragments of standing saints survive, together with line engravings of the narrative
(CICens (see SYRE and VAN WAADENOIJEN, both cited at note 40 above). Filippo
Lippi, who is documented as a monk at the Carmine between 1421 and 1432,
paintedt a fresco cdescrib)edI)y Vasari as showing the confirmation of the Carmelite
rule, an altar-piece possibly intended fbr the rood screen for the church, and at
least one small devotional panel now at Empoli: see K. CHRISTIANSEN: 'New

Light on the Early Work of Filippo Lippi', Apollo,122 [1985], pp.341-42, 343
notes 22-23; M. BOSKOVITs: 'Fra Filippo Lippi,i carmelitani e il rinascimento',

Arte Crisliana, no.715 1986], pp.235-52; and GILBERT, loc.cil. at note 19 above,
pp. 196-99. Sassetta's Arte della Lana altar-piece seems to have been painted for

the Carmine in Siena, although this has been questioned by Gilbert (pp. 180-92).

His information seems, however, not to be based on a study of the actual


documents and later accounts that form the basis of my analysis in Painting in

CHAPEL

and in September he departed fbr Hungary to work for a


year for the condottierePippo Spano.54 Recent research has
demonstrated that he probably did not return to Florence
until 1428.5" Under these circumstances, the collaboration
between the two artists can only have taken pllace in 1425,
and we may go so far as to conjecture that Masaccio's involvement stemmed partly from Masolino's need to expedite the work. Even so, the cycle was not complete at the
time of Masolino's departure, and it was left to Masaccio
to continue it alone.
This hypothesis leaves unanswered the question of why,
after enlisting Masaccio then a full twenty years younger
Masolino allowed him to take on so crucial a r^le1c
by
introducing an innovative scheme and a new pictorial
vocabulary. I doubt that we shall ever really know the
answer to this perennial riddle, which inspired Roberto
Longhi to write his brilliant article, 'Fatti di Masolino e di
Masaccio'. The existence of an altar-piece produced at this
time by the two artists fbr the church of S. Ambrogio (now
in the Uffizi) does suggest that they may have formed some
sort of association or compagnia.However, it is also worth
considering whether the Carmelite prior may have played
some part in the change. Although Carmelite patronage in
Tuscany during the early fifteenth century has still to be investigated in a systematic way, the evidence suggests that
the order consistently favoured the most progressive style
available, whether in Florence, Pisa, or Siena (not only did
Starnina work in S. Maria dcl Carmine early in the century
in what was then a completely new style, but in the 1420s
and 1430s Filippo Lippi, Sassetta, and Domenico di Bartolo
produced works for Carmelite establishments).56 At the
time Masolino was at work on the lunettes, Masaccio may
have been completing his now lost fresco of the consecration
of the Carmelite church in the cloister of the Carmine.?7
Confronted with the problem
authorship, Vasari
of.joint
that Masolino died and
resorted to the simplest solution:
that Masaccio was hired to replace him. We now know
this to be false.
Of'singular interest in the first edition of'Vasari's Lives
which is the more credible on the matter is his suggestion
that Masaccio received the commission through the intervention of Brunelleschi. Whether or not this is literally
true, there can be no doubt that Brunclleschi had a keen
interest in the young painter. The novel mouldings and
pilasters that were introduced to frame the various scenes

RenaissanceSiena, cited at note 32 above, pp.64-67. Domenico di Bartolo is said


by Vasari to have painted the high altar-piece of the Carmine in Florence: see
STREHLKE, loc.cit. at note 32 above. Masaccio's Pisa altar-piece was, of course,
also for a Carmelite church. The constant communication betweenl Carmelite
establishments in Tuscany must have provided all important avenue for the
transmission of artistic ideas. In the case of Lippi, it is known that in 1426 five
years before he is cited as a painter - he was in Siena for the feistivities of the
Assumption of the Virgin. Then, in 1428, he served as 'sopriore' in Siena (see
BOSKOVITS, p.238). Masaccio's commission in Pisa may well have come about
through such avenues (a 'Frate Bartolomeoda Firenze' witnessed one of the payments made to him), as may, conjecturally, that of I)omenico di Bartolo in
Florence.
to the document transcribed in J. BECK: Masaccio: The DI)ocuments,
57According
New York [1978], pp. 12-13, the consecration took place on 9th, not 19th April
1422, but there is no direct evidence when Masaccio commemorated the event.
Beck's conjecture that the commission led to Masaccio rather than Masolino
being hired to decorate the Brancacci chapel is mere speculation. For a summary
of opinions, see BERTI, op.cit. at note 39 above, p.88; and c. (;ILBEKRT:"l'he
Drawings now associated with Masaccio's Sagra', Storia dell'arte, no.3 11969),
pp.260-78.

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THE

BRANCACCI

arc entirely Bruncllcschian, and it is Brunclleschian architecture that forms the backdrop to Masaccio's frescoes.
Indeed, the rcmarkable and now fully visible church in
the )background of Masaccio's Peter healing with his shadow
(Fig. 15), with its engaged columns supporting a straight
entablaturc, arched windows beneath an arcade, and a
classical pediment pierced by a circular window, provides
the strongest evidence we have for Brunelleschi's ideas
ab)out church lfatades. Masaccio's depiction also bears on
the authorship of a well-known silver relief in the Louvre
showing Christ exorcising a possessed man, sometimes
associated with Bruncelleschi.5" Yet, however innovative
Masaccio's use of a framing system of corinthian pilasters
and classical mouldings to divide the scenes may have
been, it was alln equivocal success. In all earlier fresco
cycles, a careful division was maintained between fictive
architecture and pictorial space, as is evident in the frescoes
of the lifte of St Francis at Assisi. By contrast, in the
Brancacci Chapcl the intention was evidently to make both
framework and narrative conform to the same system of
projection, and the solution that was adopted was to make
the pilasters lproject into the actual picture field so that
they seem to sit not on an independent, fictive architectural
moulding, but on the actual ground or even in the case
of the St Peterbaptising in the river bed where the action
takes place. It is small wonder that the experiment was
not repeated by later artists, with the notable exception of
Ghirlandaio! Piero della Francesca, for example, eliminated
all vertical framing elements in his cycle at Arezzo.
Of course the fundamental contribution of Brunelleschi
to the frescoes was the system of perspective that Vasari
states he taught Masaccio ('suo moltoamico') and on which
the spatial logic is based. We still know relatively little
about the actual practice of perspective before 1435, when
Alberti formulated its basic principles in a way that any
interested artist could comprehend. However, Polzer's exemplary study of Masaccio's detached and badly damaged
fresco of the Trinity in S. Maria Novella makes clear that
in its early stages perspective practice was no simple matter
(indeed, in the predella scenes of his altar-piece for Pisa of
1426, Masaccio employed an empirical system for which
there are precedents in Trecento practice).59 In the Trinity,
Masaccio seems to have transferred the architectural setting
from a carefully worked out and presumably scaled, drawing to the damp plaster wall, using a system of lines drawn
from a foreshortened square to find the proper shape of a
column, and some type of squaring to help in foreshortening
the face of the Virgin in accordance with the low viewing

"LOIN(;II, loc.cil. at note 12 above, pp. 161-62, was the first to make this ascription; )both attril)ution and date have heent much discussed. See most recently,
P. JOANNIDES: 'Masaccio, Masolino and "minor sculpture"', Paragone, no.451
[19871, pp.15-18, 1).23 note 47, and p.24 note 54.
"SCe j. POLZER: "I'he Anatomy of Masaccio's Holy T'rinity', Jahrbuch der Berliner
Museen, 13 [1971], pp.18-58. P. ROSSI: 'Lettura dcl "Tributo" di Masaccio',
Critica d'arte, LIV, no.20 [1989], pp.39-42, has proposed a reconstruction of the
perspective scheme of the Tribute money that presupposes a distant point construction that could only
been laid out on pa)per and then transferred to
havew
the wall mechanically. 'Ihis
appears to have been the procedure adopted in the
Trinity ir'esco, b)ut there is no evidence that it was used in the Tribute money.
Indeed, the discrepancies Rossi finds in the fresco almost certainly derive from
an approximative/cmpirical system that could b)elaid out on the wall itself with
strings, a straight edge, and a compass.

CHAPEL

18. The Pazzi Madonna, by Donatello. Marble, 74.5 by 69.5 cm. (Staatliche
Museen, Berlin).

19. Hope, by Donatello. Bronze, 52 cm. high. (Baptistry, Siena).

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THE

BRANCACCI

20. Madonna and child with two angels, here attributed to Giovanni di scr Giovanni,
called Scheggia. Tempera and gold on wood, 57 by 37 cm. (Musco Horne,
Florence).

point he assumed.60 None of the settings of the Brancacci


Chapel frescoes is of this complexity, but all the buildings
represented in them required some sort of incised 'scaffolding'. This could take the form of a few vertical lines marked
at regular intervals along an orthogonal, as in the scene of
St Peterdistributingthegoodsof thechurch(Fig. 17) to space the
windows of a foreshortened fagade, or a more complicated
system in which radiating lines are incised from various
centres along the orthogonals to determine the stone

600n the possible function of this squaring, see the discussion in BORSOOK, op.cit.
at note 19 above, pp.59-60. In all probability, the Virgin's face was studied
separately on a piece of paper, and the squaring was simply used to transfer this
study to the wall. It should not be confused with Alberti's velo, which was
created as an aid in studying fbreshortened figures, and it can hardly be taken
as evidence for presuming that Alberti was in Florence prior to 1428, when the
ban on the Alberti family was lifted (this is suggested by BERTI,op.cit. at note 6
above, p.56, among others).
"6BERTI, op.cit. at note 6, p.48, has now accepted the entire work as Masolino's,
as has BALDINI, loc.cit at note 6 above, p. 104, and BALDINI and CASAZZA,op.cit. at
note 8 above, pp.123-4. 'l'he reattribution of the background buildings and
figures to Masolino had already been suggested in WATKINS, loC.Cit.at note 11
above, pp.72-73, on the basis of an analysis of the giornate.
(2See BORSOOK, op.cit. at note 19 above, pp.65, 67 note 45; and WATKINS,
0loC.Ci.
at note 11 above, p.73. I cannot agree with Casazza (in BALDINIand CASAZZA,
op.cit. at note 8 above, pp.123-24) that Masaccio had anything to do with the
perspective scheme of the background. Indeed, an emphatic but simple perspec-

CHAPEL

blocks of a palace, as in St Peter healing with his shadow


(Fig. 15).
Perspective was, however, only the framework for
Masaccio's new pictorial vocabulary. It created the spatial
stage, but no less important was the problem of'filling this
stage with objects that appear to occupy the expanded
space. In the Raising of Tabitha, Masolino was able to get
down the main lines of a perspectival setting so effectively
that, following Longhi's analysis, the background buildings
have frequently been attributed to Masaccio. They are,
however, totally out of scale with the foreground structures
and can now be seen to be painted in Masolino's pleasing,
pastel colours, with his keen eye for homely detail.6' It has
long been known that to construct this perspectival setting,
Masolino attached a cord to a nail placed just to the right
of the two well-dressed messengers in the centre of the
scene: he extended the cord along the fobreshortenedsides
of his planned buildings, and snapped an impression into
the damp plaster.62 The foreshortening of an arch or
irregular surface could not be resolved so simply: rather
than go through the painstaking steps that Masaccio's
system of projection demanded, Masolino resorted to a
free-hand method which produced the mis-shapen arches
of the Temple portico at the left. Moreover, filling these
spaces with solid looking figures posed still further problems, and throughout Masolino's career the figural components of his compositions remain distinct from their
settings. The spectators who surround Tabitha's bed
scarcely displace more space than those of Starnina in his
scene of the death of St Jerome painted twenty years
earlier in the Carmine (Starnina's fresco is known from an
engraving in Seroux d'Agincourt's Histoire de 1'art). For
Masolino, the new science was reduced to a workshop
technique to be added to the formulas already in his
repertoire.
Masaccio almost certainly succeeded where Masolino
failed through his innovative use of sculpted models which
he could drape, pose, and place under controlled lighting
conditions, enabling him to study the manner in which
light describes form and the space around it.63 Only in
this way could he break free from the prevailing workshop
methods described by Cennino Cennini, for whom modelling was a matter of applying colours in a carefully gradated
sequence. Masaccio realised that by modelling figures in
distinct planes, the impression of form was actually increased,'64and that light could be used not only to describe
form, but also to articulate space.65 Here again, the clean-

tive construction, divorced from the narrative content, is also typical of Masolino's
work at S. Clemente and at Castiglione Olona, and has been well characterised
by J. WHITE (The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, New York and London, 2nd
ed. [1967], pp. 137-38) who refers to Masolino's interest in 'the abstract pattern
of perspective' (p. 144).
6~This was first suggested in j. POPE-HENNESSY: 'The Interaction of Painting and
Sculpture in Fifteenth-century Florence', Journal of the Royal Society qf"Arts,
CXVII [May 1969], pp.420-21.
64Few have commented on Masaccio's novel handling of paint, but even in the
small Madonna and Child created for Cardinal Orsini and now in the Uffizi, the
small, regular brushstrokes of earlier artists are replaced with thinly applied
areas describing the edges and cavities of the drapery. It is my impression that
Masaccio experimented with novel glazes, especially in his pinks.
65The most acute analysis of Masaccio's use of light is R. OFFNER: 'Light on
Masaccio's Classicism', Studies in the History of Art dedicatedto William E. Suida on
his Eightieth Birthday, London [1959], pp.66-67. However, I cannot agree with
Offner's suggestion that this innovative use of light derived from a study of
Roman frescoes.

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THE

BRANCACCI

ing has reinforced our perception of quite how novel


Masaccio's achievement was: it entailed nothing less than
the rejection of sanctioned traditions for a method of
painting based both on direct observation and on a theory
of vision.
The use of sculptural models became commonplace after
Masaccio it is, for example, described in detail by Filarete
in book 24 of his treatise, completed by 1465, and is alluded
to in Ghiberti's Commentaries.66
The most significant statement on the use of three-dimensional aids, however, comes
from Alberti (De Pictura, III, 58), who declares that it is
better for a painter to study a mediocre piece of sculpture
than an excellent painting (as Cennino had urged his
reader to do), since from the latter he will learn only how
to make a likeness, whereas from the former he will learn
to 'represent both likeness and correct incidence of light'.
Alberti's view that 'painting and sculpture are cognate
arts, nurtured by the same genius' (II, 27) stemmed, in
part, from the common means he believed they employed
to achieve a like end.67
The practice of using sculptural models almost certainly
originates with Masaccio - or, rather, with Donatello, who
employed models as part of his creative process. It is not
coincidental that Masaccio's figures, drapery style, and
even compositions have repeatedly been compared with
Donatello's sculpture. For example, it has long been recognised that the closest analogy for the circular composition
and suggestion of an atmospheric background in the Tribute
moneyoccurs in Donatello's marble relief of Christgiving the
keys to St Peterin the Victoria and Albert Museum (which,
as we have seen, may have been carved for the chapel).68
Even a detail such as the foreshortened hand of Masaccio's
Adam has a precise analogy in the relief sculpture of
Donatello: the hand of the Virgin in the so-called Pazzi
Madonna in Berlin might be cited (Fig. 18). In both there is
a marked awkwardness, but no earlier artist had faced such
representational problems. Vasari tells us that Masaccio
'followed so far as possible in the footsteps of Filippo
[Brunelleschi] and Donatello',69 but the issue that is raised
is not simply that of recognising an affinity with Donatello's
sculpture (or even with such Antique prototypes as have
sometimes been adduced as sources for Masaccio's figures),
but his use of models actually prepared for him by the
sculptor.70 The similarities between Donatello's small-scale
bronzes, such as his figure of Hope from the Siena baptistry
(Fig. 19), and Masaccio's painted figures, give some idea of
the sort ofstatuette with which Masaccio might have staged
his compositions. Similarly, a comparison of Donatello's
terracotta bust of Niccol6 da Uzzano in the Bargello (itself
recently cleaned to brilliant effect) with the head of
Masaccio's noble old man in Peter healing with his shadow
(Fig. 15) suggests that Masaccio did not restrict himself to

"Ghiberti's comments and their relevance to contemiporary painting are treated


in The Study and
brictly by J. POPE-HENNESSY:
"l'he Sixth Centenary of
(ihiberti',
Criticism oq Italian Sculpture, Princeton [1980), pp.64,
68-69. On the use of
sculptural models by renaissance painters, see especially L. FUSCO: 'The Use of
Sculptural Models by painters in Fifteenth-Century Italy', Art Bulletin, LXIV
[ 1982], pp.125-94; w. PRINZ:'Dal vero o dal modello? Appunti e testimonianze
sull'uso dei manichini nella pittura del Quattrocento', in Scritti di storia dell'arte
in onoredi Ugo lProcacci,I, Milan [1977], pp.222-28; and JOANNIDES, loc.cit. at note
58 above.
loc.cit. at note 63 above.
67See POPE-HENNESSY,
"See, for example, MEISS,
loc.cit. at note 15 above, pp. 136-39.

CHAPEL

21. Detail of Saints Jerome and John the Baptist, by Masaccio. Tempera and gold
on wood. 114 by 55 cm. (National Gallery, London).

small models but may sometimes have employed a life-size


bust or a cast from life to study the play of light on an
irregular surface. The figures of St Peter paying the tax
collector in the TributeMoney and distributing alms in the
lower band seem to have been created from a single,
draped model or mannequin viewed from different sides.7'
Equally, the marvellously described drapery of Masaccio's
St Peter enthronedmust be the result of a study made from
actual cloth dipped in size and arranged on a lay figurea procedure later followed by Leonardo in Verrocchio's
workshop. And Masaccio must have transcribed his impressions of these models in drawings embellished with
washes and white heightening, of the type that soon became
commonplace. This new method of making pictures enabled Masaccio to leave behind the neo-Giottesque style
he had practiced only three years earlier in his triptych
from Cascia di Reggello, and to create the strongly plastic
figures of the middle tier of the Brancacci Chapel; and
then to move on to a still bolder manner in which form is
described almost entirely in terms of light and abruptly
modelled planes ofcolour. Indeed, so great are the advances

69VASARI, Vol.I, p.289.


7"'The comparison made by L. BERTI ('Masaccio 1422', Commentari,XII, 2
[1961], p.93), between the figure of St Ambrose in Masaccio's triptych of 1422
at Cascia di Reggello and Donatello's contemporary bronze statue of St Louis
of Toulouse only underscores how little the derivation of motifs - in this case the
way the two saints hold their croziers - has to do with the representational
problems to which I refer and how distant Masaccio was at that date from
understanding the means towards his goal.
71This was noted by PRINZ(loc.cit. at note 66 above, p.202). I cannot agree with
Prinz in extending the practice to Masolino.

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THE

BRANCACCI

CHAPEL,

23. MadonnaandChildwithlwo angels,by Masolino. D)ctachcdfresco, 100 by 140cm., showl rc-illstalled


atbove the sacristy door fbr which it was painted. (Santo Stefman, Emporli).

22. St Benedict,b)y
Starina. Fresco, 500
by 130(crm.,
)l'fiorc
from

(l('tachmcnlt

the wall. (S. Maria


d1(l(armine,
'
Floircnc).

made in the lower tier of the Brancacci Chapel that Ilike a numb)cr of'othcrs am convinced these frescoes can
only have )een lpainted after an interruption; this was
prob)ab)lyoccasioned by Masolino's departure fo)rHungary
in 1425 and by the commission from Masaccio of'an altarpiece fi)r the Carmine's sister church at Pisa in 1426,
where he worked in the co:mpany of Donatello. The similarity betwccn the damaged Madonna and Child in the
National Gallery, London, from that altar-piece and the
figure of'St Peter seems to me a clear record of his expanding
mastery.
Now, more than ever bef'cre, Masaccio's work in the
Brancacci Chapcl can be seen to chart the replacement of

7"T1'1 (iuote. is

o thel
I 7rallalo ((:Codx tUrbitiasLatinus 1270, fbil.196r): scc

workshop conventions with a vastly more complicated


creative process based on direct observation, which was too
novel and complex for the forty-three year old Masolino
to have fully absorb)ed. It was this method that set a
challenge to successive generations of'artists:to Fra Angelico,
whose work carried out around 1430 shows a new awareness
of Masaccio's method of modelling in planes of' colour; to
Filippo Lippi, whose Annunciatlionin S. Lorenzo actually
imitates the idiosyncratic style of Masaccio's buildings in
the background of the Raising of theson of Theophilus(a use
of applied mouldings that derived from the architecture of"
the exterior of the Florence Baptistry, so admired
)by
Brunelleschi); to Piero della Franccsa, whose frcsco of the
Queenqf Sheba adoring the wood of the true cross now seems
more than ever an homage to Masaccio's Tribute money,
and whose figures were certainly studied from draped layfigures or models; to Filippino, for whom the experience
of completing the Brancacci Chapel frescoes was determinant; to Leonardo da Vinci, whose statement that 'light
and shadow together with forcshortening constitute the
ultimate excellence in the science of' painting'72 could
hardly have been fbrmulated without Masaccio's initial
experiments; and to Michelangelo himself' who as a youth
made a drawing after the very figure of' Peter in the
Tribute Money that seems most likely to have been bascd
on a draped model. But as we can now see after the
cleaning of the frescoes in both the Brancacci Chapel and
on the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo was not only impressed
by the tactility of Masaccio's figures, which he transcrib)ed
in that drawing. He was struck by Masaccio's marvellously
lucid and novel method of achieving sculptural effects b)y
the use of colour laid down in broad planes; except that in
his work, as never before or since, painting became the
true handmaid of sculpture.
MuseumofArt,New iork
Metropolitan

A. MCMAHON,
cd.: Treatiseon PaintingbyLeonardoda Irnri, Pricetn 1!n119561,

p.840.

2()
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